Sins of the Founding Father

George Washington, the Indigenous Tribes, and the Decisions that Shaped America’s Future

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Pub Date Aug 17 2022 | Archive Date Jan 18 2023
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From the bestselling author of Astoria, Young Washington, and an upcoming book about the legendary Shawnee Chief Tecumseh comes a startling, revisionist look at the earliest days of the United States, its first president, and the policies that laid the groundwork for the political and racial divisiveness of today.

A violent clash that sparked outrage and division. A president governed by self-interest and unfettered by the limits of executive power. Fierce debate over the status of non-white people. A Constitution under threat. The crises that have plagued America in recent years are largely viewed as unprecedented events. But they’re not—far from it. The country was first rocked by these seemingly modern-day troubles more than two centuries ago, when the United States was in its infancy and the ink on its governing document was barely dry. At the center of it was our history’s hero, George Washington.

In the fall of 1791, Washington, just two years into his presidency, was unsatisfied with where the country was going—or not going. Worried about Revolutionary War debt owed to France and an unsettled frontier that left the fledgling country vulnerable to European attack, Washington was determined to expand westward. Through a series of increasingly heavy-handed treaties with Indigenous tribes, the U.S. government claimed bigger and bigger swaths of the vast wilderness west of the Appalachian Mountains. The tribes, many of which rejected the notion that their ancient homelands were for sale, pushed back, hard. They refused to cede territory and launched raids against white settlers who, at the government’s urging, poured into traditionally Indigenous lands. Looking out for the nation’s interests, and his own—years earlier, he had claimed 30,000 acres of this land for himself—Washington decided it was time to act. After a series of small military efforts to subdue the tribes had little effect, he sent a large battalion of soldiers to a compound of Indigenous villages in the Ohio Valley, rich and fertile land that the country, and its president, was hungry for.

The expedition was a disaster for the Americans troops. Some 700 soldiers were killed in a surprise attack in the pre-dawn hours of November 4, 1791. In a symbolic gesture that spoke volumes, Indigenous warriors crammed dirt—the very soil Americans wanted for their own—into the eyes and mouths of their victims. It would be the most devastating loss at the hands of Native Americans in the military’s history, resulting in three times more casualties than at Custer’s Last Stand, a century later.

The ignominious defeat in Ohio was an unacceptable debacle for both the president and Congress, which demanded answers. This prompted a series of controversial debates that eerily foreshadowed questions we struggle with today. How to investigate a president? How much power and autonomy does he have? What is the role of the military during national crises? This all but forgotten battle was a defining moment, with repercussions that echo down the years. It exposed gaping holes in the Constitution and shined a spotlight on the power of the U.S. presidency. Most tragically, it marked the hardening of an attitude toward Native Americans that would allow the U.S. federal government to take over 95 percent of Indigenous lands in the next hundred years. Today, we are living with the consequences.

Both a gripping wilderness narrative and an astute commentary on American politics and history, Sins of the Founding Father takes a fresh and nuanced look our country’s earliest days and its beloved but deeply flawed Founding Father.

From the bestselling author of Astoria, Young Washington, and an upcoming book about the legendary Shawnee Chief Tecumseh comes a startling, revisionist look at the earliest days of the United...

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